Persian Mexican food might not be the first cuisine combo that comes to mind for Bay Area diners. But Movida Lounge owners Bobby and Shima Marhamat asked, “Why not?” After all, as the San Francisco Chronicle, reported Bobby grew up in Nebraska working in his parent’s Mexican restaurants, spending his time “tinkering” with Persian flavors familiar to him from growing up. Then, two months after opening his Persian Mexican restaurant in October 2023, Michelin came knocking. Steps away from 21st Amendment Brewery, the Marhamats’ Movida is one of the first San Francisco restaurants to highlight Persian Mexican fusion cuisine, bringing not only cocktails and entrees together but doing so in a novel and creative enough way to get the attention of the famous tire company.
Persian cuisine could also be considered Iranian since Iran used to be Persia. The country only officially took the name Iran in 1935. For most, the consideration of both Iranian and Persian food is limited to home cooking, though new restaurants such as Maman Zari in Chicago put white tablecloth Persian tasting menus on diners’ radars in summer 2023.
That down-home ethos is reflected in San Francisco and Bay Area restaurants, such as the loving preparation of ghormeh sabzi and jeweled rice at Lavash in the city and the heart-shaped bonbons at Shekoh in Palo Alto. Even Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown voyage to Iran focused most directly on the hospitality that permeates Iranian culture, as he was invited back to someone’s house for a homestyle meal. As a result, Iranian restaurants in America have primarily specialized in bringing this homestyle cooking to the masses.
That’s the restaurant landscape that Movida has begun to disrupt, fitting for a business started by a tech executive and SDSJ graduate. The couple’s restaurant strives to marry Persian cuisine’s tart herbaceous flavors with familiar Mexican items like tacos, tostadas, and chips and salsa. Like Samin Nosrat identified in her “Acid” episode of Salt Acid Fat Heat, Iranian and Mexican cuisine have a lot in common, including their shared dedication to incorporating tart acidic flavors in nearly every meal.
Shima and her husband noticed an opportunity to bring that delicate combo to San Francisco. No other dish exemplifies the marriage of cultures like Movida’s pomegranate chicken tostada. The item riffs off of a popular Persian pomegranate syrup and walnut-based stew, fesanjoon, incorporating rice into the tortilla for a hybridized tostada that nods to the crispy rice tahdig diners may recognize. The tostada is crunchy and chewy, providing a base for the pomegranate sauce to soak in. It’s topped by a Shirazi pico de gallo — named so for its resemblance to the ubiquitous Iranian salad “shirazi” — of pickled onions, avocado, and Lighvan cheese. “The flavors marry well together,” Shima says. “You see Japanese-Peruvian fusion, but not too much with Persian fusion.”
Movida isn’t only a restaurant but also a lounge hosting live DJs Thursday through Sunday nights. There’s an elevated booth overlooking the restaurant where in-house DJs bring the sounds of Tehran and Mexico City to San Francisco. When there are no live musicians, the restaurant fills with a list of Persian and Spanish songs selected by DJ Turker Yilmaz, a local favorite of Bobby and Shima’s, whom they’ve worked with previously at pop-up events.
Additionally, most ingredients in Movida’s cocktails are crafted in-house, including fresh pressed juices, rosewater, and blended and brewed teas. For those who abstain, the Pico Lima is made with a pineapple shrub that evokes an almost kombucha-like vinegary punch smoothed out with the blend of black tea. The plush velvet booths evoke the House of Prime Rib, but the cascading staircase mural across the bar transports diners to halcyon days elsewhere.
The lively ambiance and a strong cocktail menu also make Movida a great choice for brunch, which recently debuted within the first month of the lounge’s opening. “We’re here to provide a fun atmosphere with fusion bites and craft cocktails,” Shima says. “Music is huge in the Persian and Mexican cultures. We want to have a good time, and [we’re] trying to provide something for the younger generation to push culture forward. ”
Movida (555 2nd Street, San Francisco) is open Tuesday through Sunday.
Correction: February 2, 2024, 2:25 p.m. This article has been updated to reflect that Bobby Marhamat graduated from San Jose State University.